Oh, Good Lord!

Simple instructions

With the first of two 60-foot rows of onions in the ground, I sent The Kid, who had just started with us a few weeks ago, into the greenhouse. The instructions: Bring me a bundle of onion sets for the next row. After a couple of minutes, he came back … with a turtle shell in his hand.

“Brian, do you think Cindy wants this?”

“No,” I replied, “you can have it.”


“By the way, did you get the onions?”

“Oh, good lord,” he said.

Sometime later, after running a string to guide our hand, we had the second row planted. Donning my best mentor hat, I said, “It’s nice to step back from good work and appreciate what you have accomplished.” He stepped back and agreed, it looked good.

Gesturing toward his feet, I pointed out, “You’re standing on the onions in the first row.”

“Oh, good lord,” he said.

We headed out to one of the pig paddocks. The occupants had just gone to the processor, and the space needed cleaning up. Our first task was to roll up the electric wire. To do the job, we used a giant spool, much like an oversize fishing reel. And just like with the spool of fishing line, it is very easy to make a mess in quick order if you aren’t paying close attention. The more failsafe task is to unhook the electric wire from the plastic insulated posts. So, I had The Kid start with that part of the project.

After a couple of minutes of watching him try to unhook the line from the first post, I got tired of tapping an impatient foot unnoticed.

“Here, you turn the crank, I’ll unhook the wire. But, be careful. Watch the spool and don’t make a mess.”

A few minutes later, I looked behind me. The Kid was merrily cranking away, a large bird’s nest of tangled wire ballooning out of the spool.

“Hey, look what you are doing!” I barked.

“Oh, good lord.”

Later, while we were putting away our tools, I lectured in my most teacherly voice:

“You know, Kid, there are times out here when I might yell at you. Don’t take it too hard. I just want us to get stuff done. And on those occasions when I get exasperated, you will know to either listen up or move faster. It is like with your parents — they yell at you because they care and want you to just pay attention. You know how that is….”

He looked puzzled.

“My folks have never yelled at me.”

“Oh, good lord,” I said.


The old Morris chair celebrates Christmas

In the darkness, a couple of hours before sunrise, the wind has come up. I dress quietly, find my way downstairs. After making coffee, I take a seat in the old Adirondack chair on the front porch. The warm blast in advance of the cold front, roaring in like heavy surf at night, rolls over the wooded ridge and across the valley in waves. Becky, our aging stockdog, takes up point behind the chair, in easy reach of a comforting hand. Obstreperous bulls and boars are as nothing before her snarl, but a bit of rain, a rifle shot, or a clap of thunder sends her from the field in a cower.

Something has shaken loose out by the haybarn, prompting me to mutter a hope that it isn’t anything significant. As Christmas draws near, it is not visions of sugarplums, but rather vast sheets of plastic blowing off hoop-houses that dance in my head. Meanwhile, the yearling lambs bleat in protest at being woken up. I should tell them that with a month left on this earth, they’d best be up and enjoying the early morning. The butcher waits for no one.

Perhaps the great thread-spinners prompted me to do the same this morning — one never knows when death will arrive. On the eve of the winter solstice this year, we hosted the daughter of a best friend from college. Only 2 when her father unexpectedly passed away 22 years ago, she was now beginning a quest to visit his friends, to answer the unknowns of self and place.

It had been more than 33 years since I had shot pool and drunk Dixie beer in the Bayou with her father. I could hear him clearly in her voice and laugh, reminding me that we only think we are masters of our individual selves. A step back reveals context, threads connecting us as part of a larger and lovelier tapestry. Like the wind hurtling over the ridge, which began over the flat prairie, which began over the cold oceans, we have origins within origins rolling back, back, to the beginning and the before.

On the morning of the solstice we put my friend’s daughter in her car. She headed south to a Louisiana home she had never visited, a motherland that had nurtured generations of her father’s family. We wished her well and waved goodbye.

And now, this early morning, my coffee finished, the storm moving closer, I stand up and bring Becky into the house. She heads directly to hide behind the venerable Morris chair — a relic of a wedding suite belonging to my great-grandparents, bought in Boston on their honeymoon, brought home to Crowley, Louisiana, before journeying north to Tennessee, a century later, to this farm of their great-grandson.

I return to the wind and begin my morning chores, my first stop making sure the hoop-house is indeed intact. The pregnant ewes in the main barn let me know with familiar bleats that they wish to be fed and turned out into the fields. The ewes are only days from the start of lambing season, bellies hanging low, udders engorged, the struggles of birthing and raising last year’s offspring forgotten in this year’s discomfort of waiting for the new generation, fresh threads on life’s ancient tapestry.


Reading this weekend:  Small is Beautiful, by E. F. Schumacher. Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands: a book of the rural arts, by Allen H. Eaton. American Fantastic Tales, the two volume collection from the Library of America.

The Steen’s Syrup Republic

It pains me to speak of parental moral failings. Yet, an honest, clear-eyed assessment of the shortcomings of our role models is what makes us men and women, separates us from the mere beasts, even when the lessons on how to live are learned at the clay feet of those nearest and dearest. Indeed, out of rigorous self-examination does greatness rise.

Now, in order that others gain from such experience, let us draw back the curtain, stiffen our spines, and take instruction. My stepmother, limited by her birth in North Louisiana, had two principal failings, each of which was encouraged by not being instantly and roundly denounced by my father.

The first, she put a powdered creamer in her coffee. In those distant days, when the northern part of the state was still a foreign country, the natives of that blighted land were wont to using this unholy substance. And they did so without shame. When dining at the Pioneer Club, with all the family as witness, my stepmother would request it with her after-dinner coffee. A quick scurrying by waitstaff, huddled conversations, eventually a distraught chef issuing from the kitchen with apologies: “We are sorry, ma’am, but we do not have this ‘powdered creamer.’ Would you like some milk?” She soon took to carrying a jar of Coffeemate non-dairy coffee creamer, a scarlet sin hidden away in her purse, for emergencies, its mere presence an indication of membership in an outlier clan of which such an act would be construed as “normal.”

The second failing, and perhaps the more to be pitied, was her preference for Smucker’s fruit syrups over our native Steen’s cane syrup. No doubt, my siblings will be mortified at my airing of such dirty laundry, but, there it is, it cannot be unsaid. Sins of such magnitude (to be cataloged alongside the predisposition of norlanders to drown their breakfast with sweet tree sap) cannot be lightly dismissed with a “we must make allowances.” Lines must be drawn.

That my brothers and sisters have all managed, even with this egregious moral instruction, to still learn, one foot before the other, that a syrup created from the juices of sugar cane stalks cooked in an open kettle to burnt gold is the only correct choice to pour over pancakes must surely give hope to the citizens of our land. Children learn lessons from both good and bad example. They can and do transcend poor practices through acute observation, ultimately choosing the higher road and shunning the moral transgressions of those of weaker constitutions.

Fear of flavor is not a lost moral crusade; pilgrims still struggle on the rocky road. Although in these waning days of the Republic our options may be limited, the way obstructed, we still stand resolute with a courage that never wavers.

Steen’s syrup, now and forever.


Reading this weekend: Father and Son, by Larry Brown. S is for Southern, a guide to the South, from Absinthe to Zydeco.

The Path We Take

Turn left in 300 feet … turn left … turn left…. Rerouting … rerouting … rerouting.

Recently, a young relative of mine set out on a 600-mile road trip to attend his cousin’s wedding — and got lost halfway there when his phone went dead. Hearing of his misadventure I was confused. How could someone go so far and then get lost? And how did a dead phone terminate his travels? Did he not consult a map? Own one? Pick up the free one at the state line? No, apparently a map wasn’t needed because he had a smart phone. Until it wasn’t. The would-be wedding guest set off on an eight-hour-plus journey, armed with no more than an address to guide him in where and how he was going. So, what did he do, when the phone, and consequently the GPS, died? He turned around and drove home.

As kids, my older brother and I would sit down with the National Geographic and, starting in June, begin to dream about August vacation destinations. The back pages of the magazine were chock-full of advertisements from state tourism boards. We’d send off for packets from exciting places like Montana, New Mexico, and Idaho, all locations with elevations higher than the six-feet-above-sea-level spot that we called home. Soon, fat packages of maps and “things to do” would arrive in the mail.

The maps would be unfolded on the kitchen table, where we would trace out routes we might take on the most narrow and obscure road possible. “Let’s drive down this little road in this valley south of Missoula,” I’d say. We’d pull out the encyclopedia and read about places we were going to visit. There were shoeboxes jammed with maps in the closet, a big globe and stacks of atlases in the den.

Today, in my own library, there resides a broad assortment of state and international maps and world and historical atlases. Because, maps give us more than a hopeful path to a distant destination. They inform. Why is there a Northwest Angle exclave in Minnesota, and just what is an exclave anyway? Where were the original colonial boundaries of North Carolina? How did the frontier of the late Roman Empire contract? Maps inform, and they also feed our curiosity: Is Puerto Rico surrounded by water? (Why, indeed it is, Mr. President.) They serve as a springboard into the past, present, and future. And, yes, even answer the mundane: What are my options for getting to a wedding in Oregon?

Of course, GPS is a remarkable technological feature. It gets us to a destination without getting lost, without having to wonder where we are. Yet, cocooning ourselves in a cushion of geographical illiteracy also breeds a listless lack of awareness, demanding nothing more from us than an abiding self-interest. And, in the absence of an alternative mode of mapping — whether it’s orienting to the sun or grabbing the gazetteer — when the GPS goes dark, it leaves us with no option but to turn around and go home, wherever that might be.


Approaching storm

Growing up on the Gulf Coast, where life was measured by the big storms, your given name could serve as a handy marker of your age. Post-1957, Audrey disappeared from the lists of incoming elementary pupils almost entirely. After ’69, no one named their child Camille.

In the hallway of our home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, hung a map. On it we plotted the latitude and longitude of each new disturbance as it sprang to life off the African coast or in Mexico’s Gulf of Campeche. My older brother, always a bit of a weather nut, actively tracked the storms. He would often plot an apocalyptic path to our door, then erase the hoped-for trajectory with a “there is always next year” shrug when the storm petered out or went off to blight someone else’s life. It’s not that he ever wished harm on anyone. There’s just something seductive about the destructive power of a hurricane. It’s like watching a Powerball lottery grow, except that the payoff is something that no one really wishes to win.

This past week it was my extended family in Beaumont and Houston who won that lottery, and recipients of the winning tickets will still be dealing with the aftermath in years to come. Harvey is just one in a long list of tropical storms and hurricanes that have recently resulted in 500-to-1,000-year floods in the South: Houston (2010, 2015), Baton Rouge (2016), Columbia, South Carolina (2015), the Carolinas (2016). Sadly, epic floods account for only a handful of the extreme events now occurring with increasing frequency across the globe, and it looks as if this nasty-weather lottery will only keep building to a stronger payout with each daily contribution made to the fund of planetary climate change.

As the waves of Harvey hit the Texas shoreline, likewise a predictable wave of finger-pointing washed ashore. Seems that a certain segment of the population confused the larger community of devastated coastal residents with the lesser community that had voted for Donald Trump, and proceeded to say that they had gotten what they deserved —blaming the whole of Gomorrah on just its naughty residents.

This holier-than-thou attitude rankles me. Because, let’s face it, whether we fall into the camp of climate-change deniers, with their heads buried firmly in the sand, or climate-change acknowledgers, staring in awe as the storm approaches, virtually none of us is doing anything significant to change the planet’s trajectory of catastrophe or to prepare for its impact.

Both camps, by and large, are still active participants in the consumer-industrial machine. Unless we have gone Amish or medieval, we depend on the people of the Gulf Coast for our cushy life. Our great collective illusion of progress is that we can continue to enjoy our current lifestyle simply by making the correct purchasing choices or pulling a lever in the voting booth, that we can use magic or tweak our way out of this mess. We can’t. That life is no longer sustainable.

According to that map hanging in the world’s hallway, the potentially cataclysmic future — for earth and, consequently, for humanity — has now passed the Leeward Islands and is picking up speed and strength. No wiping the grease board when a fantasy destructive track changes its course.

We all have bought into this lottery, and we all are at risk of winning it. So, if there is to be finger-pointing, let’s do it facing the mirror. And in the meantime, fill your bathtub with water, stock your larder, and prepare for landfall.

These are the Days of the Evil Uncle

We are currently hosting my fifteen-year-old nephew on the farm for two weeks. I’ve been devoting all my spare hours to developing fiendish new ways to torture this city-born boy. But, it has proved more difficult than this Evil Uncle imagined. I have put him on the fencing rack for seven straight hours, forced him to work in the greenhouse all morning, restring hundreds of feet of electric fence for hogs….and, he was still smiling.

But, on Tuesday I have a plan to finally break his spirit. We will be putting up over three-hundred square bales in the barn. That should do the trick.

In the meantime, breakfast. For, even the condemned deserve a final meal, or, two.

Giving the Finger to Modernity

I practice at being out of step with modernity.

The mercury is already pushing the mid-80s by afternoon, and clouds are beginning to build in the west. I sit in my car in a Pennsylvania parking lot next to a mattress store, watching. Across a field, a boy is perched on the bench seat of a hay wagon, holding the reins to a team of Belgians. Farther back stands an older boy. He is reaching down and catching square bales as they are tossed up to him from other boys on the ground. He already has stacked a layer three-high on the 16-foot wagon. The driver, maybe 8 to 10 years old, twitches the reins and moves the load forward every few minutes before again coming to a stop. Up ahead, the father is driving a second team that pulls a gasoline-powered baler, spitting bales onto the ground at regular intervals as it tracks the windrows of hay.

The scene I observe is a Hieronymus Bosch painting with a twist: In the background of the tableau, the family of man and boys gathers forage for the winter. At the forefront, a stoplight blinks commands on a four-lane highway, the center of a tortured world of strip mall architecture, where the obese and the tattooed pour onto the roads and the pavement groans under bumper-to-bumper traffic. A boy, the same age as the ones working the field, sits in a car, screen-staring his young years away. A man in the front passenger seat stares ahead, oblivious to any other way of living. A Chick-fil-A and an Olive Garden shoehorn the paved landscape and the fields of the family at work.

Farther down the road, back in the stream of modernity, I pass three different buggies of Amish women, all driving teams, their children aboard, moving down the highway at five to eight miles an hour. If the journey is indeed more important than the destination, then these women and their children have learned the lesson well. They are chatting and laughing, as their fellow travelers, mere feet away, are entombed and unsmiling.

Do they ever glance at the cars and wonder, May Swenson-like: “Those soft shapes, 
shadowy inside the hard bodies — are they their guts or their brains?”

I pull into my hotel parking lot, retrieve my luggage, check in, and go up to my room. I open the curtains to glimpse the last of the day. Across another parking lot, across a road, lies another field. In the dying evening light, another man and a team of Percherons pull a manure spreader across the pastures back to the barn. On the seat, on either side of him, are his two sons, sharing an unheard conversation.

Standing at the window of the third floor, in isolation and sadness and cowardice, I think, we chase our lives across the decades seeking a sense of purpose. Yet our gaze is averted from the possibilities and the wisdom gained from living slowly, at five to eight miles an hour.


Reading this weekend: The Ends of the World: volcanic apocalypses, lethal oceans, and our quest to understand earth’s past mass extinctions, by Peter Brannen. An interesting read about all the ways life has been wiped out in the past on this planet. And, it gives you a nice perch from which to contemplate the same.